Marketing is Destroying the Science Fiction Genre

all the myriad waysThe other day I was listening to NPR as they ran a piece on the TOTALLY NEW! NOT SCIENCE FICTION! genre of Cli Fi or Climate (change) Fiction.

A year or so ago I was subjected to the same kind of nonsense with the introduction of the TOTALLY NEW! NOT SCIENCE FICTION! genre of Lab Lit (Laboratory Lit).

Who are these folks trying to kid?  Themselves?  Not me, that much I can tell you.

I find it highly significant that the primary theme of these introductions to new genres spent as much, if not more time, establishing their unaffiliation with SF as they do trying to distinguish one type of science fiction from another.

It’s a continuation of (though a bit more nuanced) the same hoary old denigration of the genre from the mainstream literary crowd; McCarthy’s The Road isn’t apocalyptic SF, its LITERATURE!  Atwood writes SPECULATIVE fiction, not that squiddy stuff!  And on an on, a bunch of intellectuals playing with themselves and hoping no one notices.  Sorry.  Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the field is seeing splooge all over the place.  Not noticing isn’t the hard part – avoiding it is.

In the long run I don’t think it’s the fault of the authors; I think it’s the marketing types, still operating under last century’s generally negative reception of that Buck Rogers Stuff.  I think the authors are being told by the marketing arms of their publishing houses that they’ll get more sales if they don’t label the work as SF.  Compounded by an obvious ignorance of what exactly science fiction is.

Here’s the definition of Lab Lit: (and wiki definition)

Unlike science fiction, lab lit is generally set in some semblance of the real world, rather than a speculative or future one, and it deals with established scientific knowledge or plausible hypotheses

Wow.  Start the definition by telling us what it isn’t.  (I bet it isn’t mystery or western or romance either….).  Right off the bat I can think of several highly-regarded Science Fiction novels that fit that definition:  How about Niven & Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer?  Semblance of the real world?  Check. Established scientific knowledge?  Check?  Plausible hypothesis (a devastating comet strike)?  Check.  Camp Concentration?  Check, check and check.  Just about everything Crichton wrote.  (Oh wait, his books are marketed to airline passengers.)  Brunner?  Same, same.

But wait.  The definition goes further:

They may or may not center exclusively on the science or the workplaces of scientists, but all tend to feature scientists as central characters

Please find me a science fiction novel that DOESN’T feature a scientist….

And then there’s this:

Novels set in the past featuring fictionalized explorations of real-life scientists can also be considered lab lit…

Steampunk anyone?

There’s SCADS and OODLES of fiction that was written as SF, authored by self-identified SF authors and marketed with those rockets and planets labels on their spines that fit this definition.  Significantly, nothing in that definition actually distinguishes Lab Lit from SF.

Except for the tired old and incorrect belief on the part of marketing types that if they can fool the public into believing that they aren’t reading SF, they’ll get more sales.

I wonder if any of them has ever considered the reverse side of the equation;  suppose they spent as much time and money on marketing SF (to a world that has gone totally geeky and consumes SF fare in other media to the tune of billions of dollars annually) as they do on making up non-existent genres and deceptive marketing, what would the sales figures look like then?  Better, I am sure.

Cli Fi is the exact same kind of BS.  A formal definition has not been offered yet, but it is described thusly:

Over the past decade, more and more writers have begun to set their novels and short stories in worlds, not unlike our own, where the Earth’s systems are noticeably off-kilter. The genre has come to be called climate fiction — “cli-fi,” for short.

Of course, science fiction with an environmental bent has been around since the 1960s (think J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World). But while sci-fi usually takes place in a dystopian future, cli-fi happens in a dystopian present.

…On a world not unlike our own….

Good lord, talk about reaching.

Add to these two genres Margaret Atwood’s personal playground of  ‘speculative fiction‘ (uh huh) and the Mundane SF movement and you’ve got four branches of literature, recognizably SF to anyone not deliberately wearing blinders, that are desperately trying to distance themselves from a non-existent boogieman.
They’re also distancing themselves from their core market (SF readers who don’t care what you call it but know what it is) and at the same time insuring that SF is never recognized (or rewarded) for the power-house genre that it really is.

SF has the strength and the tools to encompass every form of the foregoing and then-some:  it can merge with the western, with romance, with mystery, having the flexibility to successfully incorporate their tropes and themes, character types and to go beyond their limitations because the scope of science fiction is limitless.  Want a western feel?  Transplant Texans to their own planet (A Planet for Texans – Piper).  Want a mystery that presents one of the greatest locked-room problems of all time (one that would be impossible to formulate in a contemporary setting)?  Add some robots (The Naked Sun – Asimov).

The problem seems to be that outside of the SF publishing field, everyone else (marketing types I mean) seem to define SF by the works found in one sub-branch of the genre:  old-timey, pulp-based space opera (and let me tell you, there ain’t nothing wrong with that neither!).  They’ve forgotten or ignore the fact that Iron Man isn’t just a great comic franchise, isn’t just a Hollywood blockbuster franchise, it’s also SF.  The Walking Dead that touches our zombie nerve?  SF.  Top selling games Bioshock and Halo?  SF

Marketing types – look at the BILLIONS those properties have generated.  There’s your market for books.  You guys can slap any kind of cover on your books, slather it with any kind of hype you want:  Why not turn your efforts to selling these (SF) books to an already established market that has continuously demonstrated that it wants more, more, MORE!  Stick an image of Ironman on the cover of Oryx & Crake and see what that does for your sales.  Put some zombie apocalypse art on the cover of the lastest Cli Fi drama.  (Bet it sells!)  All you really need to do (pay close attention here, it will save you money and increase your sales) is make the connection for the public.  Do you like the super hero movies?  You’ve been enjoying SF.  Do you play futuristic games?  You’ve been enjoying SF.  They’re drowning in SF these days and loving every minute of it.  Geez, just look at Hunger Games and Twilight (shudder).  There’s your freakin model right there.

Humorous imagery aside (and I’m only half-joking with the above) these marketing efforts that deliberately attempt to divorce specific types of works from their SF roots actually do a fair amount of harm to sales over on the unabashedly unashamed willing-to-admit-what-they-are SF side.

For one, niche markets, by their very nature, limit appeal.  Broad genre classifications encourage branching out while niche markets do the opposite.  “Oh darn, no new Lab Lit on the shelves today, guess I’ll go play some Bioshock and catch up on The Walking Dead.”  Encouraging readers to stay within a comfort zone does both the reader and the publisher a disservice.

For another, developing a new category that has to be defined, edited, art-worked, distributed, sold, promoted and advertised obviously divides effort and budgets (and who takes the hit?  Mid-List genre writers most likely.  SF authors, that’s who).

And for yet another, defining a new genre in the negative, extolling its virtues by telling us what it is not doesn’t just confuse those of us who know better, it perpetuates the myth that there’s something wrong with Science Fiction.  How does that play over on the other side of the publishing house?  We’re living in a science fiction world, surrounded by science fiction properties in film, comics, television, games, in the headlines of our newspapers and blogs, daily subjected to visions of what the future will bring (and has brought) and yet you’re telling everyone that the only genre that has the tools to both invent and explain it all is something they should stay away from.  Good move marketing departments.  Good move.

But hey, if the heads of marketing departments at the publishing houses want to shoot themselves in the foot – go read All the Myriad Ways by Niven.  Maybe you’ll decide to change your target.

(For a bit of fun – Google search returns for the phrase “Not Science Fiction“)

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1 Comment

  1. It’s hard to say where in the cycle the “not science fiction” stupidity continues to draw its impetus. I tend to think that it starts in the academic world rather than on the marketing end. This is not to blame all academics since I know some are open and supportive of SF, but I have encountered more than a few English and Creative Writing professors who dismiss science fiction as fit only for the great unwashed (fortunately I think their numbers are dwindling). With so many in the publishing industry having suffered through such influences while they were young and impressionable in college, it is not a great stretch to see this as a source of the prejudice. Granted, one would expect that marketing, in the interest of maximizing profit, would act as a corrective force on this error. Regardless, the lag we see in science fiction being so prevalent in society yet still dismissed by many in the literary world, may be due to lingering influences from college and may take another generation before it goes away.

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